In these days when technology has touched corners of our lives never thought possible, the only question now is how to use it. Getting in touch with your cousins in Kilkenny could mean anything from dialing a few extra numbers to texting their cell phone.
For the Irish, calling “home” is just as obligatory as it is for anyone else, and the combination of technology and increasing demand has made it easier to do so while abroad.
Retail telecom, as it is called in the business, has long been seen as a sector carried by immigrants.
In most cases it is an immigrant company that sells or distributes the colorful cards that adorn corner grocery shelves, and then another immigrant who buys them. Rates to most countries are cheaper than dialing direct, Ireland being one of them.
Coming in denominations from $5 to $25, you can get up to 1,204 minutes with a $20 card.
The way they work is by a PIN number on the back of the card. To make a call, you would dial the access number, which is usually a local call, and then enter the PIN.
Phone cards seem to be an overwhelming favorite with immigrants because of the price and the amount of talk time they provide. The pre-paid aspect assures no separate billing, and you can use them on almost any phone, including cellular.
One of the giants of the business is IDT, a Newark, N.J., company that sells more than 450 cards a minute, according to their 2003 annual report.
Raking in over $1 billion in revenue in the last fiscal year, IDT’s interests in pre-paid phone cards made more money than their home calling plans and long-distance plans combined.
That money trickles down to the resellers, many of whom thrive in local Irish communities.
Patel, an employee of Smoke Shop, a cigar and magazine store in Sunnyside, Queens, estimates phone cards make up about 17 percent of weekly business.
“It’s about $300 a week. We get about 60 Irish people in here alone each week for phone cards,” he said.
The rates can be so alluring that there is no need to spend a lot of money on the cards, either.
Kieran and Stevie, who did not want their last names used, talked about the sense that using a phone card makes to keep in touch with family and friends in Ireland.
Stevie, a Belfast native, figures he goes through one $5 phone card every two weeks.
“It’s so cheap, you get like 500 minutes. I can call from my cell phone on the weekends because I get free weekends, and I could talk for a good while.”
Kieran echoed his sentiments.
“I call home about once a week; I only need the $5 card,” he said.
Before phone cards had such a foothold in the immigrant experience, there was only the home phone to rely on. The big phone companies, such as Verizon and MCI, have been offering international plans to make the bills easier to swallow every month.
MCI offers a monthly plan where, for a flat fee, calls to Ireland are 8 cents a minute.
Debbie Lewis of MCI’s public relations department said, “There is a minimal decrease of volume in the late summers months, as many Europeans go home at that time.”
MCI’s business has not been affected by the increase in phone card usage, said Lewis, as “in general, Europe is holding solid.”
Verizon counts Ireland among its top 20 international countries called, with generally over a million minutes of traffic a month going over its network to Ireland, according to Christy Reap, who is with Verizon’s communications department.
There are other methods to reach loved ones. Having burst on the market six years ago, the ubiquitous “10-10” numbers have been promising to take the sting out of international rates. Many of these services, which are a product of Telecom USA, a division of Hitachi, involve dialing a code, such as “10-10-987” and then the number you want to reach.
Rates for Ireland are 3 cents a minute and a modest connection fee of 46 cents, and the bill for any calls made with that prefix comes separately. Customers find it worth the effort, if you are calling from a home phone.
Don’t count Mom and Dad out of the texting boom. Ireland, noted for being at the forefront of cell phone usage, has made a huge dent in the international numbers of texts sent and received, and is not slowing down.
Texts sent from cell phones here to those in Ireland generally run about 25 cents per message, but it is worth it to some to be in the loop with friends for short notes or quick hellos.
Conrad Buckley, a Tyrone native, claims his mother now hassles him for not texting her.
“My flat mate constantly texts everyone he knows, and now my mother tells me it’s a shame you don’t have one of those phones that texts,” he said.
Buckley says that now that his parents are digitally connected, it is a far cry from what he remembers it being like before he came to the states seven years ago.
“When I left, nobody knew anything, nobody used the phone. Now my mother, 3,000 miles away, knows where I was on Saturday night,” he said, shaking his head.
The rate at which connectivity grows is holding steady, and Ireland’s infrastructure has been growing with it. So whether it is news of large or small proportions, there is a way to tell those in Ireland cheaply and easily.
Either way, you should really call your mother.
She’s waiting to hear from you.